Visitors to the mirador of San Nicolás in Granada’s Albaicín, a viewpoint frequented by many tourists for its wonderful vista of the Alhambra set against the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, will see next to the church a beautiful purpose-built mosque blending in perfectly with the Albaicín’s Moorish architecture. What they won’t be aware of is battle that had to be fought to achieve it. The existence of the mezquita is a tribute to the patience and determination of Granada’s Muslims, who purchased the unwanted plot on which it stands in 1981. It took twenty-three years of struggle for their vision of a mosque in the Albaicín to be realised. This was the campaign that Deborah in Secrets of the Pomegranate became involved in.
The roof terrace of the carmen where I lived for several years was within a hundred metres or so of the designated site. The building was already underway when I moved there in early 1999. I would look across at the unfinished minaret, observing the progress made each week and then wondering why all work had suddenly stopped, the crane standing stationary and redundant for month after month, eventually stretching to years.
When the Catholic monarchs conquered Granada in 1492, the Albaicín had thirty-four mosques. Most of them were transformed into churches, the minarets becoming church towers. San Nicolas itself was once a mosque. However, this counted for little with some of the more conservative elements of the local community, who instigated a campaign in the neighbourhood to try and prevent the mosque being built. The petition presented to the municipal authorities resulted, in 1984, in a reversal of the original approval granted to the project. The mosque site was designated as for residential use only. The mosque, it seemed, would never become reality.
It wasn’t until 1994 that building permission was finally granted although obstacles still remained and it took another nine years before the mosque was completed and opened its doors to the community. Opposition persisted – Islamophobic graffiti appeared on walls in the vicinity – but the mood was changing: local authorities, the press and general public were becoming more sympathetic to the idea. When work finally recommenced, I watched with excitement as the building progressed, culminating in the mosaic decoration under the eaves of the minaret with the Muslim declaration of faith in kufic lettering.
The tower of the minaret is designed and constructed in the original Albaicín style, while famous mosques from across the Muslim world have provided the inspiration for other elements of Granada’s mosque. The Mihrab or prayer niche, adorned with beautiful panels of cedar wood from the Atlas mountains, is an exact replica of that in Cordoba’s Mezquita. The multi-coloured marble tiles are copied from the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and the windows are identical to those of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Master craftsmen from Fez in Morocco designed and made the mosaic fountain in the patio leading to the prayer hall, following a thousand year-old tradition.
From the beginning, the mezquita has demonstrated a policy of openness to everyone. The prayer hall itself is for Muslims only, but visitors of all beliefs or none are welcomed in the rest of the building and in the beautiful, tranquil gardens with their uninterrupted view across the valley of the river Darro to the Alhambra on the opposite hill, Mount Sabika. Standing there quietly, looking across at that magnificent legacy of al-Andalus, you experience an almost palpable sense of Granada’s history.
As one of its pamphlets proclaims, “The Mosque of Granada signals, after a hiatus of 500 years, the restoration of a missing link with a rich and fecund Islamic contribution to all spheres of human enterprise and activity.” The fascinating mix of cultures in Granada is one of the features that has long attracted visitors to the city.
But now a battle is on for the famous Mezquita of Córdoba, which incorporates the city’s cathedral. Despite it being a World Heritage site, the Church managed to appropriate it in 2006, at a cost of €30, and re-designate it as a Cathedral rather than a Mosque-Cathedral. A Change.Org petition addressed to Unesco and the government of Andalucía has collected thousands of signatures protesting at this takeover and attempting to keep it in the public domain.